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Power in the Leader-Follower Relationship

Wherever an organization lies on the spectrum from “hierarchical” to “shared” leadership, there is always some power vested in the leaders and some in the followers. In shared leadership, the power is more balanced although one faction may accumulate power over other factions. In an autocratic hierarchy, power appears to reside almost entirely with the leader until something occurs that causes the followers to depose the leader and reclaim their power.

The situation in which power appears to reside entirely with the leader is very dangerous both for the follower, who can be ruined at the leader’s whim, and for the leader, whose followers become sycophantic. Sycophants act according to what they have learned is expected of them in a situation. They do not observe or think well for themselves, and often fail to take appropriate actions. This hurts the leader and the organization.

As followers, our formal powers are unequal to the leader’s, and we must learn to participate effectively in the relationship despite this. We may have far more power than we imagine, however, and too often fail to exercise the power we do have. It is critical for followers to connect with their power and learn how to use it. To maintain and strengthen power, it must be used; otherwise, it will wither.

The sources of a follower’s power are varied:

  • the power of purpose, the strength that comes from commitment to the common good;
  • the power of knowledge, the possession of skills and resources the organization and its leadership value and do not want to lose;
  • the power of personal history, a record of successes and unassailable contributions to the leader and the organization;
  • the power of faith in self, belief in our observations and intentions, in our integrity and commitment;
  • the power to speak the truth, as we see it, to the leadership;
  • the power to set a standard that influences others, to model values and behavior for the leader and group members;
  • the power to choose how to react in a situation regardless of what is done or threatened by others;
  • the power to follow or not follow in a given direction;
  • the power of relationships, of networks of people who know and trust us;
  • the power to communicate through a variety of channels;
  • the power to organize others of like mind;
  • the power to withdraw support if the leadership’s actions violate our values.

If we are to be effective partners with leaders, it is important to remember that as followers we possess our own power, quite apart from the reflected power of the leader.